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With school closed, students with special needs missing vital help

A Cottage Grove family is among those struggling without the structure of school.

The mandatory school shutdown and shift the distance learning amid the COVID-19 outbreak has put strain on many Minnesota families, but particularly those of students with special needs.

Many schools in Minnesota have now been closed for a week, with the majority not starting distance learning schedules until the end of the month.

While many have had to arrange childcare or juggle working from home with their children, the closure of school presents a different set of challenges for the parents of children with special educational or behavioral needs.

Sheletta Brundidge is a producer at WCCO Radio and the host of the Two Haute Mamas podcast. She is also the mother of four children, three of whom have autism who attend South Washington County Schools.

Since the shutdown was announced by Gov. Walz last week, Brandon, 7, Cameron, 6, and Daniel, 5, have been without the speech, occupational and speech therapy.

Usually when school shuts down for weekends and holidays, Brundidge brings them to the Family Achievement Center in Woodbury for supplemental therapy. But with COVID-19 shutting that center down as well, they've found themselves without any available therapy, and their mother says they're already regressing.

"My three children have autism and two of them are high functioning," she said, "but they have only made progress because of continuous intense therapy and a solid routine from the school.

"Without that they won't be able to make additional gains and the skills they learned they may forget."

Brundidge is doing what she can using educational workbooks to keep them busy, but ultimately she knows it's not enough, noting that "I'm not a therapist. I'm a mother."

"My 7 year old Brandon is having panic attacks again and his eye contact is not as sharp. My 6 year old Cameron has started to be shy again. My 5 year old is flinging his arms again and spinning around in circles and lining things up

"We had gotten past that," she said. "My kids hadn't exhibited those behaviors in many many months. But now here they are, back again."

"I called several other therapy centers in town and they aren't even doing intake appointments or evaluations to bring us in as new clients because of COVID-19."

She is hoping that as their school puts an effective solution in place soon as state school district plan their distance learning for the foreseeable future.

"If the special education teachers and professionals could come into the homes, do telemedicine, write up individual plans and give me step by step instructions of what I need to do for my babies I will get it done," she said.

"I either need the district to send me a specialist or give me some specialized training to help my children so they won't lose skills and continue making progress."

BMTN reached out to South Washington County Schools, who said that efforts are underway to provide replacement services for special needs students, but notes that it is a challenging exercise given the varying requirements of individual children.

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"Like districts across the state, we’re not currently providing services or education to any students until March 30, per the Governor’s order," a district spokesperson said. 

"During this time, our special education and general education teachers are planning for distance learning and resuming the services we can if the Governor extends the closure beyond this Friday.

"For special education, each Individualized Education Program (IEP) team is examining what each student needs to determine the best path forward when students cannot physically attend classes. As you can imagine, this is not a simple task and can look drastically different for each student.

"We are also concerned about students who may not be able to fully benefit from the educational services provided during Distance Learning. Each student’s IEP team would need to determine what additional services would be required once face-to-face instruction resumes."

Efforts are now being made at the national level to address the sudden dearth of special needs options. 

Minnesota Reps. Angie Craig (MN-02) and Pete Stauber (MN-08) sent a letter to House leadership asking for the inclusion of additional funds to continue meeting special education requirements during distance learning.

"This continued shortfall is exacerbated during this time of state-wide school shutdowns and an increase in distance learning," the House representatives wrote. 

"Significant funding in this next aid package for IDEA would help relieve budget pressures and provide much needed support for our teachers and school administrators who are working tirelessly to continue to educate all students in our communities through equal access to quality education."

Brundidge has recently written a book about her daughter's autism journey, called Cameron Goes To School. It is available for pre-order from Moon Palace Books and Red Balloon Books now, and will hit store shelves on Mar. 27, just in time for Autism Awareness Month.

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